The Ongoing Invitation to Conversion

The University of St. Thomas’s Office for Spirituality sponsors seasonal reflections during Advent and Lent.  I authored today’s reflection, based on Isaiah 35.  Here it he reflection I wrote:

Today’s first Mass reading comes from Isaiah, one of the major prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures and one of the great prophets of Advent.

The Book of Isaiah opens with what is a scathing indictment of the people of Israel. In the second verse, we hear the Lord say, “Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me!” And immediately thereafter, God laments: “Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord.”

But in that same opening chapter, God also invites: “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” Even in the midst of judgment – while cataloging the great sins of the people and the extent to which they have fallen away – is the promise that things do not have to be this way.

Today’s first reading captures something of the promise of better things to come. “The desert and the parched land will exult…. streams will burst forth in the desert…. those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing…sorrow and mourning will flee.”

What strikes me as I pray with Isaiah’s indictment of the people of Israel is that our society is not very different from the society that Isaiah witnessed. A world that in many ways has turned its back on God, replacing God with the idols of rampant individualism and money. A world that rewards promotion of the self to the exclusion of others; that encourages individual pursuits vs. communal goals. A world where we worship much that is not good, much that is not God.

Yet, there is still God’s promise. One preacher summarizes Isaiah’s Advent message like this: “No matter how much the world shatters into pieces, we carry in ourselves a vision of wholeness that we all sense is our true home and that welcomes us. ‘I have called you by name and you are mine.'”

And just as Isaiah called the people to prepare the way of the Lord, we are called to do the same – not only in Advent, but in each day of our lives. Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom requires our active participation. We don’t get to just sit around complacently and wait for the vision to become reality. Instead, we are called to labor with God to make it so. God continues to work through us to prepare for Christ’s reign.

Note: You can read the daily reflections here; you can also subscribe to receive them by e-mail.

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John the Baptist: A Role Model for Advent and Always

Both this Sunday and next Sunday – the Second and Third Sundays in Advent – we hear about John the Baptist in our Gospel readings.  (Today’s is from the first chapter of Mark and next Sunday’s is from the first chapter of John.)

John was given an important role. He was, in the words of Isaiah, the “voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Or, as it is put in the prologue to John’s Gospel, he “came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”  John “went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Gospel of John reminds us that John the Baptist “was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” I often say about John that what makes him so special to me is that he knew it wasn’t about him and that was OK with him. He knew that his job was to point the way to Christ and to help us prepare to receive Him.

John the Baptist is a worthy role model for all of us. When we are tempted to put the focus on ourselves, John should be our reminder that we too are messengers. Like John, we are all charged to testify to the light, to point the way to Christ by our words and our deed. To prepare not only ourselves to receive Christ, but all those with whom we come in contact.

Shall I Touch the Sky With These Small Hands

The Gospel reading for today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation.  One of my close associations with that passage is Denise Levertov’s poem titled Annunciation.  The other is a song by Danielle Rose on her album Mysteries, which contains 23 songs, each prompted by one of the Mysteries of the Rosary.

The Rose song is titled Let if Be Done Unto Me, and it tells the story of the Annunciation from the perspective of the Angel Gabriel.

The song reminds us that God gave Mary the choice whether to participate in his plan to incarnate. When the angel sets forth God’s request, Rose sings

all the heavens and the earth
stand still in silence,
Waiting for her soul to reply.
She is free to choose –
God never will abuse the sacred Yes;
she cannot be denied.

As it was true for Mary, so it is always true for us. God invites and we are free to choose. God asks but will never force a Yes from us.

The first words uttered by Mary when she first hears of God’s request are a question: “Shall I touch the sky with these small hands?” And that too, I think, is something we share with Mary. Our initial reaction is sometimes, “Me? You’re not serious. You can’t want this from me. I’m too….sinful…weak…impatient…unworthy….” What fills in that blank is different for each of us, but we share the sense that there is something that makes our hands too small to touch the sky.

But Mary overcame the doubt, the fear, the anxiety that her hands were too small. Yes, she said, let it be done unto me. And with that yes, “what was impossible is now a possibility.”

Like Mary, let us have the grace to respond to God’s invitation by recognizing that our hands, supported by God’s, are big enough to do what God asks of us.

Who Is Doing the Waiting?

We speak of Advent as a time of waiting, generally focusing on our active waiting for the coming of Christ.  And I do think that is a helpful image for us.

A reflection I read the other day suggested, however, that we might want to think of Advent waiting somewhat differently.  Joseph Lingan, S.J., Rector of the Jesuit Community at Georgetown  University wrote this:

I have often heard that Advent is a time of waiting, suggesting that we are the ones who wait. Perhaps it is not a matter of our waiting, but God’s—of God’s waiting for us. Waiting for us to pay attention, to at long last see what God has been revealing to us and to our weary world, and allowing that revelation to inform and transform us. And so that we are not intimidated by God’s initiative, He comes to us as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes…what a Joy!…to the world!

You might ask yourself, how does it make you feel to know that God is attentively waiting on you?  That God is the one taking the initiative to draw closer and closer to you – and all you have to do is pay attention?

And you might also consider: what steps are you taking this Advent to be more attentive to what God is revealing to you…how God is inviting you to transformation?

The Truth We Proclaim in Advent

Yesterday I shared Pope Francis’ message of Advent hope.  To continue in that vein, and to help us remember what it is we prepare to celebrate each year, let me share Daniel Berrigan’s Advent Credo, from his Testimony: The Word Made Flesh.  I’ve shared it before but it is worth another look, especially in the troubled times in which we live.

Read it.  Pray It.  Sing It.  But most of all: Believe It, and live it.

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

Believe It.  Live It.

We Wait in Hope

As hard as it might be to believe, Advent is here!  Advent is about waiting, but it is about waiting in hope.

And so as we begin Advent, I thought I would share some words of Pope Francis about hope, from a General Audience he gave in October.  Calling Christians people who propose hope, Francis said

There is “something more” that inhabits Christian existence, which is not explained by the force of mind or greater optimism.  It is as though believers were people with an extra “piece of heaven” above them, accompanied by a presence that one cannot even intuit.

… So, the true Christian is like this: not complaining or angry, but convinced, by the strength of the resurrection, that no evil is infinite, no night is endless, no man is definitely wrong, no hatred is invincible to love.

Today we begin our preparation for the opening act of the story that gives rise to Christian hope – the Incarnation.

As we begin this Advent, resolve to spread hope, the hope grounded in our realization “that no evil is infinite, no night is endless, no man is definitely wrong, no hatred is invincible to love.”

Who Should Pay What?

As doubtless everyone knows, Congress is currently considering how to amend the federal tax code.  Some of the proposals being considered will fall heavily on those who can least afford it, while giving breaks to those with more money than they can possibly spend.

In today’s Gospel reading from Luke Jesus notices offerings being made both by some wealthy people and a poor widow.  Doubtless the wealthy put many more coins into the treasury than the two small coins contributed by the widow.  Yet, Jesus comments (a comment intended more as a criticism of the temple tax system than praise for the widow):

I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood.

It is true that in dollar terms wealthy Americans pay most of the income taxes collected by the government.  But it is good to remember that whatever amount they pay is still only a portion of their surplus.

In real terms, those on the lower end of the scale are paying more.  It would be good for us (and Congress) to remember that as tax “reform” is debated.